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Entries in Bride of Re-Animator [1990] (1)

Tuesday
Nov162010

Bride of Re-Animator (1990)

Body Issues

Bride of Re-Animator joins The Godfather Part 2 and The Empire Strikes Back as one of the most successful sequels of all time.

(That bold, ridiculous-sounding statement deserves its own paragraph)

What is a sequel?  In terms of horror movies it’s usually a cynical cash grab that gives the audience more of what the producers think made the first film profitable (i.e. more sex, more blood, less pesky story).  That’s why most follow-ups blow: they’re rushed, (mis)calculated products that are designed with an appeal span only as broad as the recovery of its budget and marketing costs.

In a perfect world, a sequel would only appear if the creative forces behind the original felt they had more stories to tell.  It would carry over just enough familiar elements without becoming repetitive, and follow the characters and situations in their logical next steps.

A consistent tone helps, but is not always necessary (see Aliens), and in some cases even the facts of the first film are negotiable (Evil Dead 2).  The first and second films (or third or fourth) shouldn’t be totally different.  After all, you can’t show a maniac stalking teens at a summer camp in one movie and then launch said maniac into space in the next—that would be stupid.

Which brings me back to my opening claim.  Director Brian Yuzna takes all the elements of Stuart Gordon’s note-perfect Re-Animator and makes them bigger: bigger effects, bigger comedy, and bigger ideas.  There were a few points where I thought Bride of Re-Animator would lose me as it slid into corniness, but the movie always rebounded quickly.

The story opens with doctors Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) ducking bullets and explosions while performing surgery in the middle of a South American civil war.  When one of their patients dies on the table, West is quick to inject him with a modified version of his re-animation serum; as with the previous mixtures, the subject jumps back to life as a mindless, violent zombie that West must hastily put down.

Following a raid on their camp, the doctors flee back to Massachusetts and take up residence near Miskatonic University—whose hospital was the site of their botched experiments several months earlier.  Some of West’s failures still twitch and drool in straitjackets, while others—namely the bodiless head of Dr. Hill (David Gale)—wait quietly in the cordoned-off crime scene.  Hill introduces himself to one of the new staff, Dr. Graves (Mel Stewart), and convinces him to help further West’s research in secret.

Meanwhile, West and Cain discover that the key to stable re-animation lies in fusing disparate body parts together, rather than trying to bring back a whole human being; I have no idea why this would work, but I’m neither a student of science nor sci-fi science.  They create weird creatures, like a spider made of an eyeball mounted on top of several fingers stitched together; but it’s not long before West is ready to leap ahead to a humanoid test.  Cain, always the duo’s conscience, says “no”, until West presents him with the preserved heart of his ex-girlfriend, Megan, who died at the end of the first film.

Unlike some theories that place the soul in the brain, West believes that giving his Frankenstein monster Megan’s heart will literally give it her heart (if you take my poorly worded meaning).  The doctors find their prize guinea pig in the form of a terminally ill woman named Gloria (Kathleen Kinmont).  I’ll cut the synopsis short because anyone who hasn’t seen this movie deserves to experience it un-spoiled.  The madness of everyone involved culminates in a gruesome, surprising, almost screwball finale that ups the ante of Re-Animator and places Bride in the league of high-quality sequels.

The film’s only shortcomings concern one actor and one character.  Mel Stewart plays Dr. Graves as a bit too wacky, even for this universe; and, really, when a film features Jeffrey Combs reveling in his obsessive groove, there’s no room for anyone else to go over the top—situations, sure, but not performers.  The other flaw is Francesca Danelli (Fabiana Undenio), a former compatriot of the doctors in South America who becomes Cain’s new love interest.  Udenio is a spunky addition to the cast, but her character is a poorly planned device meant to both give Daniel Cain a balance between dead love and living love and give the movie a busty, screeching heroine.

What Yuzna and co-writers Rick Fry and Woody Keith overlook is the fact that West and Cain’s relationship is the only one that matters in this series.  Theirs is a classic wild-card/straight-man bond that shines when they try to stop one of their monsters or cover up the damage they've done (in lieu of another Re-Animator movie, I would love to see a wacky, gory TV series with these two moving in and out of towns every week—kind of like The Incredible Hulk on Opposite Day).  Besides, three female love interests in one mad-scientist movie is probably one too many (counting Gloria, Francesca and Megan’s heart—which, oddly, counts).

Even if you don’t buy into the comedy or the love triangle (square?), Bride of Re-Animator has more than enough spilled guts and monsters to satisfy the most die-hard horror fan.  And outside of KNB, effects don’t get more fun and outrageous than the just-plain-wrong inventions of Screaming Mad George.  The guy who gave us steaming, skinned corpses in Predator and Freddy Krueger’s soul pizza in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 goes to town here.  All of the effects are practical and there’s not a bad one in the bunch; even the animatronic eye-spider holds up well in the age of high-def television.  Best yet, George’s creations are teased throughout the movie, until the ultra-nutty climax in which we see unbelievable things crawling out of the film’s every pore (did I forget to mention that the doctors’ new basement lab shares a wall with a mausoleum?).

Bride of Re-Animator is not perfect, but it’s a great example of what a sequel should accomplish.  What keeps it fresh and moving along is the fact that the story feels like a scientific experiment, full of “if/then” scenarios that the filmmakers aren’t afraid to explore (if Herbert West’s sole purpose in life is to properly revive the dead, then he would have no compunction about hacking apart any available specimen—with no thought toward sentimentality).

It would be nice to see more sequels injected with as much care as this film, but I guess that’s expecting too much.  For every Empire Strikes Back, after all, there’s a Phantom Menace.

Note: A week-and-a-half ago, I excitedly asked Jeffrey Combs and Bruce Abbott about how the Re-Animator sequel came to be; specifically, I wanted to know about the crazy decision to leave a narrative gap between the first and second film that the audience would have to fill in for themselves.  I’d just watched the movie, and was eager to hear stories of this passion project that took five years to come together.

 

In a way, Combs’ one-word answer negates all my lofty prose, and paints Bride of Re-Animator as a fluke: “Money”.